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Liberal Conservatism's central error

Tim Montgomerie

3 In his column for today's Times, Danny Finkelstein writes this (£):

"The latest vogue idea among party activists is for the party outside government to start working on distinctively Tory ideas that show what the party would do if it didn’t have to compromise with its partners. Most of this involves being more obviously right-wing. Yet there is an irony here. If the party wishes to have more independence of action and not to rely on the Liberal Democrats, then it should move towards the centre, making the Lib Dems redundant. If it wishes to be in perpetual coalition it should move towards the right, keeping its core but making it necessary to add the support of other parties in order to govern. In other words, it should act in exactly the opposite way to that which the activists are advising."

I think Danny's, in part at least, responding to my argument that Conservatives should aim for a majority at the next election and not continuing coalition with the Lib Dems. In 1,000 words I appreciate that it's difficult for Danny to do justice to another person's arguments but to simply say that I and others are arguing for a "move towards the right" over-simplifies things.

Let me be direct: At the heart of the Liberal Conservative experiment is a lack of confidence in Conservatism. The experiment began with one gigantic but simple error. Liberal Conservatives decided that the reason the party lost elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 was that voters didn't much like Tory views on immigration, crime and tax. They didn't put the defeats down to the sleaze of the Major era, the popularity of Blair, the strength of the UK economy or to a failure by the party to occupy the whole political stage. They (and conventional wisdom) concluded that the party had been, in their analysis, too right-wing.

So Cameron became Tory leader and moved the party away from the kind of policies that characterised the 2001 and 2005 campaigns. Don't mention Europe but do talk about the Big Society. Shut up about immigration and campaign on climate change. Don't talk about the tax burden but do talk about spending more on international development.

And what happened? We couldn't win power even though we were facing the most unpopular, disunited, discredited Labour government of modern times. We added just 4% to one of the worst ever Tory election results in modern times (2005). I wouldn't keep mentioning this if it were not for the fact that the Liberal Conservatives who led us to a hung parliament are still in denial. Quite extraordinarily they don't blame their own procedural failures or their imbalanced project (where every move towards the Lib Dems was sustained and every reassurance to the right was tactical) for the disappointing result. They scapegoat the right.

Apparently, it is said, ad nauseum, that the Right want and wanted to refight the 2001 and 2005 elections. A few Tory traditionalists may have wanted this but most of us have long argued for greater breadth. This website was founded to argue for social justice, the environment and internationalism to be added to the Tory menu. The breadth is encapsulated in (our pre-Cameron) shields masthead.

What Mainstream Conservatism argues for is not a "move to the right" but a move to balance. Liberal Conservatives underestimate the backlash that awaits them if they think it is acceptable to transfer more powers to Europe, reduce prison numbers, hike VAT and, in the name of a futile attempt to combat climate change, impose higher energy bills on consumers.

My guess is that the Coalition will go to full-term but it's not impossible that it will collapse before then. Ed Miliband may not look prime ministerial but Labour is within spitting distance of becoming the largest party and the Leader of the Opposition is assembling a team that won't so much spit at the Tories but throw the kitchen sink at us.

We need to be ready for an early election. We need to be ready with a manifesto that is balanced. The argument isn't between the right and the left but between popular and unpopular. Between the outsiders and the establishment. On welfare, Europe, crime, tax, immigration and the distribution of spending across the UK, Mainstream Conservatism is more in touch with voters than Liberal Conservatism. Mainstream Conservatism is also more pro-poor because it's the poorest Britons who suffer most from crime, uncontrolled immigration and the unfair deal that London's lowest income boroughs get from the Barnet formula. If these things were being pursued, now, alongside George Osborne's deficit reduction programme the Government would be a great deal more potent.

Mainstream Conservatives also want a party that's more open, more professional, more focused on online campaigning. The weaknesses of the Tory campaign machine - analysed here - have been replicated in Downing Street.

On our own, separate from the Lib Dems, we can fight on the Mainstream agenda and Conservatism can win again. Sticking close to the Lib Dems is the unambitious option.


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